When Ryan Hopkins took over as men’s soccer coach at San Diego State in 2020, he walked onto the narrow, bouncy, windswept home field ringed by a running track on top of a parking garage and saw an opportunity, implementing a frenetic, high-pressing system that best took advantage of the facility’s quirks.
It worked. The Aztecs are 11-7-1 at the Sports Deck in his three seasons.
“Our fortress,” Hopkins calls it.
They haven’t been able to translate that success anywhere else, though, winning just one of 17 games away from the Sports Deck (and that was last October against a USD team that would finish 2-15). That stark dichotomy will get tested Thursday night at 7, when the Aztecs host No. 2 Washington not at their funky campus venue but in the expansive Snapdragon Stadium in Mission Valley with soft, absorbent grass and a massive 75×120-yard pitch.
Part of the attraction in landing what Top Drawer Soccer rated the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class was Snapdragon and the opportunity to play there annually. Now they’ll find out if they can win there.
Hopkins admits the influx of talent has altered his tactical approach, relying less on high pressure so conducive to a place where it’s hard to control the ball and more on a possession style necessary on a wider, longer, smoother field. He also has a group that has shown an affinity for playing their best against the best.
Another dichotomy: His team is undefeated against three opponents ranked in the top 10 (a 2-0 home win against Denver, draws at Creighton and Stanford)… and 2-4 against everyone else.
“The simplest way to explain all that is youth and inexperience and not having been there,” said Hopkins, who has started nine different freshmen already. “It’s a highly touted recruited class, and from a talent perspective they’ve been everything we thought they would be and even probably more. But college soccer is such a different beast than club soccer or professional soccer, how much each game matters to each team, how badly they want to beat you, how one or two missed plays or not being focused on your job can cost you games.
“It’s easier for our guys to get up for big games because they see the rankings and they know they have to be ready. It has a little more of their purposeful focus, which I think we lacked in some of those other games.”
It’s been a rough year in general for Division I soccer in San Diego, with none of the six men’s or women’s programs currently owning a winning record. The UCSD women are 1-7-4, the USD women 2-5-3 and the SDSU women 3-3-4. The UCSD men are 4-4-2, the USD men 2-3-5.
The SDSU men, at least, have shown signs of emerging from their funk, with only one loss in the last six games and unbeaten against three top-10 opponents in a two-week span. The last time the Aztecs did that was 1987, when Eric Wynalda and company ultimately reached the NCAA championship game.
What changed? The Aztecs are healthier, with all-conference Inigo Villaldea returning to the lineup last Saturday and scoring in the 1-0 win against UCSD. The roster with 15 newcomers — 11 freshmen, four transfers — and eight different starting lineups in nine games has started to jell.
And Wynalda, in town for a reunion of the 1987 team, gave a spirited address to the winless Aztecs before a Sept. 9 home date against UNLV. His message: “Rip their (expletive) throats out.”
The result: SDSU 5, UNLV 0.
Hopkins wrote Wynalda’s battle cry on the whiteboard two days later before facing then-No. 6 Denver, and Elias Katsaros scored twice in the final 30 minutes for a 2-1 win. A week later, goalkeeper Jacob Castro, a transfer from Washington, had a career-high eight saves to preserve a 0-0 tie at then-No. 2 Stanford.
That ended an eight-game losing streak in the Pac-12, where SDSU plays men’s soccer so the league can have the six members necessary for an automatic birth in the NCAA minimum Tournament. Now they get a shot at Castro’s former team that is 7-0-1 and has outscored opponents 25-5. Sophomore striker Ilijah Paul already has eight goals.
It is technically the second soccer game at Snapdragon, after the San Diego Wave set an NWSL attendance record of 32,000 on Sept. 17. Tickets are $10, and parking is free. The women’s team will play San Jose State there Oct. 6.
“We took every recruit there that we could,” Hopkins said. “I got chills the first couple times we walked in there. Man, if I was 18 to 22 years old and to get to play in a place like this? It’s such a cool opportunity for them. I was laughing to myself, thinking, ‘After the game, I’m just going to sit down and look around and take a deep breath no matter what the result is.’”